Grammar Schools: Myths and Legends

Grammar schools are being allowed to expand[i]  – extending academic selection at 11 through “satellite schools”.  It is evident that current DfE policy favours school selection, although this will often be masked. For instance, selection for the new ‘free schools’ allows them to select disproportionate numbers of high achieving children[ii] and the majority of Roman Catholic and Church of England faith schools have unrepresentative intakes[iii].

Accompanying these Government policies, several recent newspaper articles[iv] and a BBC series have been extolling the virtues of the lost grammar schools.

The BBC programmes, Grammar Schools: A secret history, referred to “the golden age of the grammar school”, “the secret history of some of Britain’s most successful schools, whose aim was to give the very best education to talented children – whatever their background”, the latter implying that comprehensive schools have different objectives.

The TV programme had the selectivity typical of those who argue for the expansion of grammar schools without acknowledging that the return of secondary modern schools would also be necessary.  A school system is either comprehensive or it isn’t:  it cannot be “a little bit comprehensive”.

The TV programme gave a revealing picture of the rigidity of the class system that supported the grammar/secondary modern division.  Education was a middle class concern into which a few bright working class children were introduced.  Among the individual testimonies to the personal advantages and achievements resulting from  success in the 11-plus exam were passing references to the number of grammar school children whose academic achievement was limited.

We were being asked to accept some dubious implications:  had Michael Portillo attended a comprehensive school, he could not have had his glittering career;  or presenting Nobel prize-winner, Sir Paul Nurse, as “a prime example of what selective education can do for a child’s life chances”.  One contributor, Roy Greenslade subsequently wrote an article in the Guardian[v] advocating the return of grammar schools, but without the return of the 11-plus (the necessary selection process).

Those who produce these glowing tributes to “a golden age” chose to disregard the evidence that we have about the effects of the grammar school/secondary modern division of children at 11.  Even the institutionalised discrimination against girls is rarely acknowledged.

The most systematic study of the role of grammar schools in social mobility[vi] uses data from the National Child Development Study, the prospective longitudinal monitoring from birth of all children born in Britain in one week in 1958.

This study addresses the logical inadequacies of many pro-grammar school arguments and highlights the need to avoid the risk of attributing “to differences between schools what are really differences between children”.

 ”The proper comparison … is not between comprehensives and grammar schools, but between comprehensives, on the one hand, and grammar schools and secondary modern schools, on the other.

“Any proper assessment of the effect of comprehensivization on social mobility must look at all children, comparing comprehensives with selective-system schools as a whole.”

 Challenging the myths, Boliver and Swift concluded from analysing these data that

“once we control for children’s attributes [i.e. comparing children of equivalent abilities] we find that attending a grammar school as opposed to a comprehensive school does nothing to increase low-origin children’s chances of being upwardly mobile”.

 Where grammar schools had an effect was

“to increase somewhat the extent of the mobility experienced by those who do move up” [emphasis added].

 “Overall, our findings suggest that comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced.”

 Those who advocate an expansion of grammar schools forget that one of the pressures for change in the 1960s originated in a logical bias that is still evident in today’s debate.  Supporters of grammar schools always expect that their own children will pass the 11-plus selection exam and are dismissive or wilfully blind to the possibility that they might not make the grade;  dissatisfaction grew when these children failed to gain entry to grammar schools.

It is also remarkable that many champions of selection, who cite social mobility as their concern, pay so little attention to the evidence of the social exclusivity of our remaining grammar schools.

Many are also unconcerned about current education policies where there is evidence of the likely damage to the educational chances of children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds – reduction of support for SureStart and other social and financial support for young children;  abolition of the educational maintenance allowance, which affected retention and performance;  and cuts in the funding to universities.

The campaign of nostalgia for grammar schools has largely avoided the evidence of the increases in academic achievement when today’s levels are compared with the examination results of 50 years ago.  On the website of the local schools network, Fiona Millar has posted some comparisons[vii]:

 In 1959, 9% of 16 year olds achieved 5 O-levels;  more than a third of grammar schools pupils only got 3 O-levels;  fewer than 10% of the population went to university and most came from professional/managerial homes; most children were failed by the 11-plus test and sent to secondary modern schools where they could not take O levels or progress to the sixth form.

 Today, around two thirds of 16 year olds get 5 good GCSEs;  almost 40% of young people now go to universities;  even though the gap in attainment and university access between children from the best- and worst-off homes is still too great, teenagers from the poorest homes are now 50% more likely to go to university than they were 15 years ago.

 The current performance of comprehensive schools is clearly inconsistent, but the available evidence undoubtedly demonstrates that the comprehensive system has significantly improved the educational prospects of British children at all levels.  Moreover, the grammar school/secondary modern school system has been shown to have seriously damaged the majority of our children – even including children who passed the 11-plus and then failed to achieve in the grammar schools. A system of comprehensive schools is better at providing for the diverse educational needs of our children.

Why, then, is the return of grammar schools/secondary modern schools being championed at this time?

© Dr Marie Stewart MBE

[i] Graeme Paton:  Grammar Schools ‘to expand’ to meet growing demand  The Telegraph 8 January 2012

[ii] Janet Murray:  Free for All  Guardian Education,  28 February 2012

[iii] Jessica Shepherd & Simon Rogers:  Church schools shun poorest pupils  5 March 2012

[iv] Alison Pearson:  Grammar schools would put us in Premier League  18 January 2012

[v] Roy Greenslade  Grammar schools worked.  Now we must reinvent them  Guardian 12 January 2012

[vi] Vikki Boliver & Adam Swift (2011)  Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility?  The British Journal of Sociology Vol 62 (1)


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